Historical preservation underway at Ave Maria Grotto

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Birmingham artist Allison Bohorfoush, Amy Jenkins of the Alabama Arts Council and local blacksmith Allan Kress pose in front of Die Wald Kapelle on the grounds of Cullman’s Ave Maria Grotto. (Sara Gladney for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman’s Ave Maria Grotto recently received a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts to begin the historical preservation of the works of Brother Joseph Zoettl, beginning with Die Wald Kapelle (Chapel in the Woods). The Grotto is filled with miniatures buildings, shrines and monuments handcrafted by Brother Joseph, a Benedictine monk who was born in Landschutt, Bavaria-Germany in 1878 and came to Cullman in 1892 to “pursue monastic life at Alabama’s only Benedictine Abbey.” Until he was 80 old, Brother Joseph crafted famous parts of the world in miniature on the grounds of what is now the 4-acre Grotto.  

On Friday, members of the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Cullman Tourism Bureau were welcomed to tour the Grotto and hear about the restoration work.

“This park was opened in 1934, but a lot of the structures are older than that. There was another grotto close by in the woods, but it was moved here in 1934. It is Cullman’s oldest tourist attraction by far. The youngest structures are probably 60-65 years old. The last one Brother Joseph built was in 1958,” said Ave Maria Grotto Director Roger Steele.

The miniature figures are mostly made of cement, and due to weather over the years, many of the structures have deteriorated. “We’ve gone through and identified probably 30-40 structures, some are in desperate need of preservation, others are in various degrees of need,” Steele explained.

The restoration of the replicas will be done by Birmingham artists Allison Bohorfoush and Tom Dameron who have been identifying cracks and foundational issues in the structures they will work to repair. Local blacksmith Allan Kress will construct handrails to line the walkways of the Grotto.

Renee Welsh, who volunteers as a grant writer and landscape facilitator at the Grotto, began the process of finding those who could help to repair the 125 sculptures. She first reached out to Rachel Dawsey of the North Alabama Agriplex, who put her in contact with Kress, who operates out of the forge at Peinhardt Farms, Bohorfoush and Dameron.

Die Wald Kapelle is one of the few replicas Brother Joseph made of a building he saw in person. Many were built after viewing postcards and photos.

Die Wald Kapelle (Allison Bohorfoush)

The structure had major structural issues and large cracks. Wire reinforcement inside the mortar of the structure had begun to rust away, leaving nothing to hold it up. The cracks were so deep that the back wall was in danger of collapse.

Bohorfoush injected siliconized concrete adhesive into the cracks and colored it with sand. “What we’re trying to do is seal it, make it structurally sound and also restore it visually. We’re trying to honor Brother Joseph and what his vision was in the first place,” she said. “We don’t want to change it.” The Chapel in the Woods is the first of many the artist hope to repair.

Upon beginning the restoration project, the right side had a damaged plain piece of glass which seemed to be a place holder for a damaged stained-glass window the same as the left side currently has. Dameron created a custom stained-glass window, made in the style of the left window, to fit the right-side window opening.

The process to replace the handrails is being taken on by Kress. The old rails have rotted. Kress’ constructed handrails are forged in his shop. The ends of the rails are crafted to resemble the Pope’s staff. The style is made to resemble the forged metal of Europe where Brother Joseph was from. “You don’t see forged metal work here in the U.S. that much where in Europe it is quite common,” he said. “It’s a very humble looking handrail, but it has function and form.” The finish is natural linseed and beeswax. As the rails rust, they can be repolished with the natural oils to look new again.

The handrails add protection for the approximately 35,000 visitors of every age who visit the Grotto each year.

Kress is an artist blacksmith with over 30 years exhibiting, teaching and demonstrating.

Bohorfoush has been an exhibiting artist for over 30 years and has won many awards in her craft. She primarily works as a coppersmith, making jewelry and reposed wall pieces.

Dameron works in stained glass, oil painting, watercolor, encaustics, charcoal, etc. He and partner, David Smith, owned Lyda Rose Gallery in Birmingham. He currently administers the Joy Gallery at Homewood Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

Allison Bohorfoush’s website: swirlgirlart.com

Tom Dameron’s website: tomdameron.com

Find out more about the Ave Maria Grotto at www.avemariagrotto.com.

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